Berkshire County continues to take enormous strides to combat the opioid crisis, including an extensive history of proactive practitioner education around pain management, more and more providers able to prescribe buprenorphine, and an increase in harm reduction, recovery, and treatment resources available despite the pandemic. In light of this extraordinary work, it was disheartening to see 62 opioid overdose deaths reported last year, up 11% from the year before and the highest number of recorded deaths. In Massachusetts, the Department of Health reports an overdose death rate of 32.6 per 100,000 residents in 2021. In Pittsfield, that rate was 88 per 100,000 residents, and North Adams experienced 71 per 100,000 residents.
Fentanyl is increasingly the major driver of these deaths– according to autopsy reports from the DA’s Office, from 2018-2021, 84% of overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Stimulants mixed with fentanyl is a growing concern– from 2018-2021, 42% of those deaths involved cocaine and fentanyl; it is not known if the individuals were aware there was fentanyl in the cocaine. In recent months, we see Xylazine in the area, a non-opioid veterinary tranquilizer not approved for human use that carries complicated health risks. Inpatient clinical stabilization is often required, as naloxone can only reverse the overdose effects caused by opioids.
There’s a lot that can be done and that we’re doing. The Brien Center and Berkshire Health Systems remain strong leaders in providing treatment and support, along with providers including Spectrum, Savida, Alternative Living Centers, and more. Berkshire Harm Reduction recently opened a South County location and launched a mobile unit, with approvals from 28 of the county’s 32 Boards of Health. In May, Rural Recovery South County Center held its grand opening on the main stretch in Great Barrington. Organizations such as Learn to Cope, The George B. Crane Memorial Center, Living in Recovery, and others have resumed in-person meetings. We’re pleased to welcome new providers Commonwealth Collaborative and Better Life Partners, along with two new programs for justice-system-involved individuals: Project NORTH and Second Street, Second Chances.
As of March 2022, 63% of police and 75% of fire departments in the county carry naloxone, which can reverse the impact of an overdose. We at BRPC, in collaboration with Berkshire Harm Reduction, Northern Berkshire EMS, County Ambulance, and many others, are piloting an initiative to provide direct support to those who have recently experienced an overdose. Youth service organizations such as Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, Railroad Street Youth Project, Young People in Recovery, and more continue to work “upstream” and “downstream.” BRPC is launching two new initiatives to protect youth against future substance misuse.
Pittsfield and North Adams are part of the HEALing Communities Study, a federal research grant aimed at reducing overdose deaths by implementing evidence-based practices, such as increasing doctors and nurse practitioners prescribing buprenorphine (including Sublocade), increasing linkage to treatment and retention, actively reaching out to underserved communities, reducing stigma, and more. County leaders are coming together around municipal allocations from the recent opioid manufacturer settlements. In June, BRPC hosted a county-wide informational meeting with municipal leaders, the Attorney General’s Office, and the MA Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. BRPC continues to support the municipalities as they collaborate to make the most responsible use of these funds.
Nearly everyone in the Berkshires, regardless of wealth, race/ethnicity, and education, knows someone or knows of someone who has been devastated by opioids. While it’s hard to see past these numbers, we also see hope—we’re not 32 isolated towns but a community of neighbors. We continue to work together to prove that recovery is not only possible but wonderful.